In Plato’s Republic, Socrates converses with his student Glaucon on the nature of reality and representation. In order to explain the perils of fictional representation (i.e. art, theater, and any other entertainment employing false devices) he uses the metaphor of prisoners chained to the side of a cave where they are forced to watch shadowplays on the wall. The prisoners come to know no other reality other than the one they are present with. They mistake the outlines of trees for real trees, the puppet shadows as real people, the actors’ voices as the voices of the characters. Their lives are encased in falseness and they lose sight of their real circumstances.

More importantly, these prisoners, when released from the cave, will not be able to function in the society as rational, clear-minded citizens. The shock they will undergo upon realizing that the cave shadows were just images will be traumatic, and many of them will reject the real world and retreat back to the cave in anger and pain.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is a foundational text for the critique of art. Just look at the way every new art form has been treated upon its arrival. Eighteenth century society condemned the novel as sensationalized and lewd, fearing that its immersive emotional intensity would corrupt readers. They thought that female readers in particular (of course) would imitate literary heroines’ sexual or unwomanly exploits. Film with graphic violence is still treated with similar criticism. And video games have undergone the same treatment for the past two decades. Ask anyone why they love their favorite show, movie, or book, and more often than not, they’ll reply with something along the lines of “I love escaping to the world of the stage/book/film.”

Were Plato’s warnings correct? Have we substituted real perceptions for fantasies and fiction? Are we too weak and susceptible to know the difference? And if so, is that such a bad thing? What’s wrong with engaging in a false reality when it harms no one?

The Nether projects this dilemma about two generations into the future, where nearly every aspect of daily life has moved into an expansive internet territory. Future internet, or the nether, also has motor-sensory capability so that not only can you conduct your daily life virtually, but also see, hear, touch, taste, and feel the virtual world through a self-designed avatar (the sensory levels seem to be adjustable according to the participator’s preference). People can even relocate their whole lives onto the nether and become ‘shades.’ There are life support systems specifically designed to enable the body through a lifetime in the nether.

Ben Rosenfield, Sophia Anne Caruso and Merritt Wever. Photo by Jenny Anderson

Our Plato is this story is a young detective named Morris (Merritt Weaver) who works in law enforcement dealing with cyber crimes. Like Plato, Morris is concerned with keeping the order of society and the nether is precisely the realm over which the law has no control. She believes that participators the virtual world, where illegality and violence face little to no consequences, will carry over their behaviors into the real world. Any law-abiding citizen can corrupt their worldview with the no-limits mentality of the nether. All people need in order to be criminals is the idea of criminality. Once someone is exposed to the nether’s world of pornography, game violence, and criminality, the idea of it can only grow in the person’s mind until it evolves into action.

Morris is investigating a virtual world called The Hideaway, a fantastical Victorian countryside landscape that functions as an internet brothel. Patrons of the world enter it using their avatars and are free to do nearly whatever they please (have sex with, molest, violently murder, etc.) to a beautiful, adolescent girl. The girl is only an avatar and can be reborn after every killing. When questioned, The Hideaway’s creator, Mr. Sims (Frank Wood) insists that this virtual world does not encourage pedophilia. Rather, it contains it on the nether. It channels his client’s sexual impulses into a safe haven that harms no one. Would Morris rather these pedophile energies be repressed by his clients, only to explode in an uncontrollable act leased upon children in the real world? Besides, why police an consensual virtual experience?

Jennifer Haley’s tight script accomplishes what few scripts can; it manages to be thrilling and thematically rich, provoking excitement during the show and discussion after.  Each scene momentously builds upon its predecessor. I can’t think of one scene I would have shortened, let alone cut. Plato might have liked the fact that director Anne Kauffman is constantly making us aware of our spectatorship, culminating with a particularly brilliant final scene in which the real consequences of Sims’ fantasy are confronted. The Nether intuitively touches upon the foundational questions of art: How much are we complicit in the lies art gives? Do representation’s lies harm or help society? Now more than ever, as our lives are relocated more and more into the abstract, intangible world of the internet, where do we turn for reality?

The Nether runs at the Lucille Lortel Theater through March 22nd. Tickets here.